A version of this post appears in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 14, and is adapted from an article by @liz, Greg Bloom, Willow Brugh, and Tammy Shapiro
Hurricane season last year was wild, right? Harvey, Irma, and Maria---each storm spreading more devastation across the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Many months later, communities are still recovering---especially Puerto Rico, where our government has outright failed its citizens. Our climate is obviously changing, and the resulting storms are intensifying: tornadoes, floods, even earthquakes (probably unrelated to climate, but now a new threat in areas with heavy fracking).
We do not seem to be particularly well-prepared. We've seen a recurring pattern in which official response agencies and organizations fail to deliver with the kind of focus, agility, and execution that we might expect---especially in historically marginalized communities, in which already-vulnerable people are often ignored or even disempowered by outside actors. FEMA notoriously failed in its response to Katrina, while the Red Cross has been repeatedly criticized for its disappointing performance after Sandy, Harvey, and Irma.
Meanwhile, we've also seen that the real first responders to a crisis are the people who live in the affected areas: community leaders who help struggling people face daily crises while just trying to get by, and neighbors who instinctively rise to help their neighbors.
Both of these patterns have deep historical roots, as outlined in Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, which examined how formal disaster response tends to address the interests of wealth and business (and entrench their power over the public good), and Rebecca Solnit's_A Paradise Built In Hell_, which highlighted how disasters bring out the best of humans' creativity and compassion for each other.
With the rise of the mobile web, these patterns are further complicated by seemingly spontaneous remote networks that have "shown up" to assist with tasks like crowdsourcing data, volunteer coordination, and more. These networks are more rapid and distributed than the formal disaster response sector; however, they also lack any of the accountability, training, and resources that formal institutions (supposedly) entail. Given our experiences to date, we believe that the promise of remote digital networks needs to be realized through intentional practices, and guided by community leadership---and that without such deliberate practice, these new modes of chaotic response might yield unintentional harm.
Many of us (including the authors of this post) have participated in these emergent responses to recent disasters. We've experienced the rush of "doing it ourselves," through efforts animated not by charity for the unfortunate, but rather mutual aid with our neighbors. We've seen clearly both the promise and the peril of modern digitally-enabled and network-led crisis response and recovery. We believe it's both possible and urgent to improve our collective capacities for disaster response, so that they may more appropriately support local priorities and leadership in times of crisis. Through these experiences, we have formed an ever-growing network of people who have a shared interest in cultivating a better practice of community-led disaster response.